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Can Elephants Sniff Out Landmines? and Other Curiosities

written by: Andrea Campbell • edited by: Tricia Goss • updated: 9/9/2015

To most, elephants are simply the largest animal. To animal power users, they are skilled engineers; to farmers, crop-raiding pests; and to big game hunters, man’s biggest challenge. We will examine the true nature of elephants and learn some about their capabilities and dangers.

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    Successful Species

    Can Elephants Sniff Out Landmines? and Other Curiosities An elephant can weigh as much as or more than a piano, but despite their size, elephants are the most intelligent of domesticated animals. Their extinct relatives have lived everywhere from sea level to heights of great mountains and in climates ranging from glaciers to deserts and rain forests.

    For centuries, they have been extremely tolerant of humans. Because of their gentle nature, men have tamed them for such diverse tasks as logging, hunting, fighting wars and entertaining in circuses or ceremonial parades.

    In the 16th through 18th centuries in northwest India at the Mughal Royal Sports arena, men placed elephants in organized fighting matches between themselves for amusement.

    An all-terrain animal able to push through thick bushes, climb hills and ford rivers, elephants have been used by military commanders since before the time of Alexander the Great.

    Today they are used in military campaigns because they run on vegetation, provide a high vantage point for reconnaissance and lend themselves to jungle guerrilla warfare as in recent wars in Cambodia, Southeast Asia.

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    Magical Proboscis

    An elephant’s trunk is one of his best assets. There are more than 100,000 muscle units starting at the skull and going all the way down to the fleshy end tip or “finger." Elephants can pick up the tiniest of objects with this tip, such as a banana or even a single seed. There are no bones down the middle of the trunk, allowing him to bend it in any direction for hugging, entwining their trunks in a greeting, grabbing a mother’s tail or using it for an elephant vocalization or “trumpet" call.

    Elephants can lift over 700 pounds using their trunks; they can shoot water from them and use them as snorkels.

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    Big Brains

    Because elephants have the biggest brain of all land animals, they can live up to 65 years. Some of their behaviors that mark them as social animals are:

    • Generations of families live together
    • They all take a hand at rearing the young
    • Elephants form coalitions and are able to engineer complicated relationships
    • They use tools; anything from clumps of grass to clean ear canals to creating fence posts to dislodge leeches
    • They self-medicate with bark to induce labor, use mineral-rich clay as antacid and find salt for overall health
    • Elephants mourn their dead
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    Sense of Smell

    Elephants have the best sense of smell of any animal because of their 2,000 genes dedicated to scent, double that of dogs and five times as many as humans. In comparison, horses have 1,000 smell genes, rabbits exhibit 750 and rats have about 1,200.

    In fact, elephants are so adept at smelling that they can sniff urine in order to tell whether an elephant cow is in estrus –in heat and ready to mate. More incredible still, they can use their sense of smell to detect another elephant’s health. For health reasons they also use the tusk, nose and teeth to hunt for salt, digging it up from the soil, finding it in rocks or locating salt licks.

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    Landmine Sniffing

    Recent research has found that elephants excel at detecting landmines. This idea first surfaced in South Africa after the Angolan civil war during which millions of landmines were set to impede farming. After the war, elephants were found with their legs and trunks blown off after having stumbled onto the many land bombs. After a time, scientists noted that they were able to traverse the area using their extraordinary sense of smell. This phenomenon was put to the test.

    With the aid of the United States military, researchers conducted experiments in Bela-Bela. Trainers taught the elephants to sniff buckets that held samples of TNT. If they located the explosive, they were to raise a front leg and earn a treat, a tasty fruit called marula. Three elephants named Shan, Mussina and Chishuru took the tests enough times to produce an accurate result. Out of 74 times sniffing buckets in a line, they found the samples of TNT (dissolved in acetone on paper) 73 times. This new technique earned the name: “bio-detection."

    Scientists from the University of Tokyo who have recently studied the African elephant’s sense of smell are convinced they can tell the difference between tribespeople. According to a study recently published in Current Biology called: “Elephants classify human ethnic groups by odor and garment color"; elephants were able to distinguish the Maasai people, who assess their young men’s ability to spear an elephant, from the Kamba, farmers who are apt to leave elephants alone in peace. Their large olfactory bulbs, large areas of their brains and ability to assess threats are the key.

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    How to Corral an Elephant

    Wildlife parks have recently figured out how to contain elephants, which may save their endangered lives. The park workers place a chain of beehives along the edge of the park, keeping them from raiding local farmer’s crops and providing them sanctity from poachers. Even empty hives work. Elephants are afraid of African honeybees in groups and the “beehive fence" seems to work as a deterrent.